On July 31, the Nebraska State Racing Commission approved installation of historic racing machines at Fonner Park.
Fonner Park CEO Chris Kotulak said at the time that he hoped to have the machines installed sometime between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, but later he said hopefully by the start of the Fonner live season on Feb. 21.
Now that could be in doubt as well.
On Friday, two Hall County residents filed a lawsuit against the commission in Lancaster County District Court alleging that neither the Nebraska Constitution or state law allows this type of wagering.
Duane Fuller of Grand Island and Jeffery Haymann of Doniphan filed the suit.
The Lincoln Journal-Star reported that the lawsuit said: “By issuing the Final Order that allows Fonner Park to engage in pari-mutuel wagers on historic horse races in violation of the Nebraska Constitution and the Nebraska Revised Statutes, (the commissioners) improperly exceeded the authority granted to the Commission.”
The historical racing machines are legal in Kentucky, Wyoming, Oregon, Alabama and Arkansas. They are considered by proponents to be something that would give a much-needed boost to horse racing in Nebraska.
The racing commission approved the machines in July by a narrow 3-2 vote.
“The big question in my view with regard to any new wagering, is does it meet the test of paramutel wagering,” state racing commission chairman Dennis Lee said at the time. “Other states have different requirements. Nebraska is not unlike other states in that it has those same pari-mutuel requirements.”
Lee said the terminals are another form of pari-mutuel wagering which is legal in Nebraska.
The push for historical racing has been going on since 2012 when lawmakers passed a bill to allow this form of gambling, but then-Gov. Dave Heineman vetoed the bill.
In 2014 an attempt to allow voters to amend the constitution to allow historical racing was blocked by the Nebraska Supreme Court.
The racing commission first approved the machines in October of 2018, but that was put off when attorney general Doug Petersen balked at both the legality of the vote and the meeting itself, saying that the public needed to have an opportunity to comment on the measure.
Kotulak maintains that the machines are legal and would indeed provide a much-needed financial boost to horse racing in the state.
“I just know that we’ve seen the incredible results in other states, some as close as Wyoming, whose racing product in the past has never been close to the quality of racing in Nebraska,” Kotulak said in July.
“...Virginia racing went away until they got historical horse racing approved and now in a matter of weeks they’re going to start up another race meet with tremendous purse money. This is no different than Nebraska horse racing.”
Whatever else happens, the Fonner Park live meet will run from Feb. 21 to May 2.